Forget restaurant pasta — this is for real
Italian food looms large on the food landscape, and pasta and pizza will always be at the center of it. I, like a lot of people, who grew up on pasta. I ate my fair share of spaghetti and meatballs, cold pasta salads, and lasagna. That isn’t a complaint, just a fact. As commonplace as pasta was in my household, there was always one dish my mom made every so often that held my attention. It was a dish no one else knew about (at least in my eyes) that blended household staples together in such a way as to create totally new flavors. She didn't make it often, I'm not sure why, but when she did I held in my excitement and waited patiently at the dinner table.
Pasta alla Carbonara is a simple pasta dish consisting of bacon, black pepper, eggs, and cheese. Each person adds his or her own twist to the classic, but at the heart of a carbonara lie those four things. Cream is not used in the recipe, a common occurrence in restaurants, only eggs and parmesan to create the sauce. The heat of the pasta cooks the egg through, creating a silky sauce, coating the pasta. Crispy bacon adds backbone to the dish, which is finished off with black pepper. Fresh pepper is crucial in carbonara, and I use plenty of it to give it a nice bite at the end.
It is one of the simplest pasta dishes I know how to make, but it is still impressive. I will never order it at a restaurant because cooking it at home probably takes half the time and will be twice as good. This recipe is in my arsenal of quick, cheap, autopilot dishes, something I can make when I am tired and worn down but still don't want to sit in front of a bowl of cereal at 8 p.m. Pasta alla Carbonara is hearty, rich, and warming, something we all need in the middle of this Seoul winter.
I have adapted my recipe to the challenges of living in Seoul. Samgeopsal, cut thin, stands in for the bacon. Obviously, if you come across some quality bacon or pancetta, use that instead, but here in Korea we often must do with what we have. You miss the cured pork product but still get all the pork fat. The other major change in my recipe is using the rendered pork fat to caramelize large Korean green onions and toss them through the finished dish. I don't throw in green peas, or broccoli (both common additions in some places), I just stick to a few quality ingredients and let them do the talking.
If I haven’t sold you on pasta alla carbonara already, well then, I don’t know what else I can do. Crispy pork, caramelized onions, eggs and cheese should be enough to sway the toughest critic. All I can say is this: take 30 minutes out of your evening and make this recipe. Eat this alone or make it for a friend. Read a book or put on some bad TV. Just enjoy the food and the comfort that it brings.
Pasta alla Carbonara: Serves 2
2 servings of dried spaghetti
2 eggs, room temperature
½ cup of grated parmesean cheese
1 thick slab of pork belly (samgeopsal), finely diced
1 ½ cup of finely slice large green onion (or leek)
3 cloves of garlic, minced
freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons of olive oil
Set a large pot of salted water on the stove to boil. Add the olive oil to a saute pan over medium-low heat along with the pork belly. Cook until crispy. Remove the pork and drain on a paper towel. Drain off all but two tablespoons of fat from the pan and add the onions, cooking over a low heat until soft and golden brown, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another two to three minutes, then remove from the heat. Whisk the eggs with the cheese. Season with salt and pepper. When the water boils, add the pasta and cook to the packages directions. Right before you drain it, remove a half cup of cooking liquid. Drain the pasta and return it to the pot. Add the egg and cheese mixture to the pasta, stirring to incorporate. Use the reserved pasta water to thin out the sauce (this can range from 2 tablespoons to the full half cup), making sure it coats the pasta smoothly and it doesn't clump together. You are looking for a velvety texture to the final sauce. Add the bacon and green onions and season with a generous pinch or two of fresh ground pepper. Taste and adjust your seasons then transfer it to a large bowl or individual plates. Garnish with fresh green onion, more black pepper and grated cheese.